Monday, April 26, 2010

More on the Playoffs

Like most NBA observers, I expected the first round playoff series between the L.A. Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder to be interesting but still I underestimated it. I figured this series would follow a well worn narrative of a young playoff novice putting a small scare into the sage and savvy defending champions. Yet if after these first four games any Thunder fan that doesn't think their team can win is a hardy cynic. The Thunder's performance in games 3 and 4 feel more sustainable than the Lakers in games 1 and 2.
Okay, I know, I know, that's easy to say after the Thunder's 110-89 win on Saturday night, but it was exactly the vehemence of that win that led me to question the narrative at work here. These two teams were thought to be close and upon further examination some trends should give Lakers fans reason to worry. First of all the two teams second half of the season performance actually favors the Thunder who went 22-13 after the All Star break to the Lakers 18-14. More importantly, the Thunder are a very poor matchup for the Lakers. Just as happened with Aaron Brooks of the Houston Rockets in Lakers second round series last year, the L.A. defense is struggling to contain a speedy point guard. In this case, it's the Thunder's Russell Westbrook who is blowing holes through the Lakers defense.
What's worse, the Thunder's defensive strength capitalizes on the Lakers biggest weakness. The Lakers are not a good 3 point shooting team. during the regular season they ranked 24th at .341; they simply cannot stretch the floor. That's damning flaw against the Thunder whose perimeter defenders are Westbrook (6'3"), Thabo Sefolosha (6'7") and Kevin Durant (6'9"), tall guys for their positions with active arms. The Thunder run off steals and they get more deflections than any team in the league. The Lakers offense has ground to a crawl. During the regular season the Lakers averaged 105.9 points per 100 possessions; through four games with the Thunder they are scoring only 98 points per 100 possessions.
The Lakers still have two solid points in their favor, home court advantage (and the Thunder have yet to win a road playoff game), and Kobe Bryant. Bryant was a nonfactor in Games 3 and 4. He will have to be Kobe Bryant, Superstar, in Game 5 for the Lakers to have any sort of chance. The Thunder are packing the middle and keeping the ball from the Lakers big men, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In other words the games on Tuesday and Friday should come down to the Lakers offense versus the Oklahoma City defense. OKC is winning the battle so far and they have served notice that they will likely be an elite team really really soon, but winning in Staples is still a big step.
If I were a betting man, I'd take a pass. The numbers point to OKC but betting against the defending champs at home in a key game doesn't seem like a sound play either.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The First Round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs

The first round of the NBA playoffs is usually a formality, an opportunity for 55 win teams to show off how much better they are than 46 win ones. That probably won't be the case this year. I can readily see five of the eight series going deep into their second week.
The reason for this is fairly simple; the standings are unusually close. In the Western Conference, only seven games separate the #1 seed Los Angeles Lakers and the #8 seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In the 2-7 matchup between the Dallas Mavericks (2nd) and the San Antonio Spurs (7th), the lower seed has nearly twice the point differential of their higher seeded in state rival. The Western #4 vs. #5 matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz features two teams with identical records.
ESPN's John Hollinger, a writer I admire, noted this week that in the first round the higher seeded team with the better regular season record almost always wins these matchups, (41 of the last 41 times), but this season looks like its built for exceptions.
I think Cleveland, Orlando, and Phoenix will breeze into the second round, but the other five series will have the drama of a much later round.
The Utah Denver series will depend entirely on the health of Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin and Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko (Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer is also ailing but the team has a more than adequate backup in Paul Millsap); without knowledge on their availability, the series is too close to call.
The Lakers should find themselves in a tough series against the young, inexperienced Thunder. The Thunder's strength is their perimeter defense; they use their length to deflect passes and create turnovers. The Lakers weakness on offense is spreading the floor (they have no consistent three point shooters presently). I can't see an upset but I'd be surprised if this doesn't go six games.
In the latest edition of the battle of Texas, I can see the Mavericks overcoming the Spurs entirely due to the depth they picked up at the trade deadline when they added Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood from Washington. The Mavericks were one of the better teams after the break, though their opposition is somewhat underseeded due to a bad run of injuries.
The Atlanta Hawks won't breeze into the next round but they are significantly better than the Milwaukee Bucks, who are missing their starting center Andrew Bogut. With him, the Bucks could have taken this series seven games, instead it will probably be six.
The Boston Celtics of current vintage usually play a surprisingly dramatic first round series and this season should be no exception. Their matchup with the Miami Heat won't go several overtimes, but it should go seven games. The Celtics staggered to the finish, and the Heat who finished only three games behind Boston were one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch. Seeing how Boston defends Dwayne Wade will be the highlight of the first round. This series will only surprise if it doesn't go seven games.